Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of the science fiction novel by Frank Herbert, begins with an ambush. Armed figures patrol a desert devoid of human life, guarding machines that mine swirls of sand for a rare and mysterious commodity called “spice.” Then attackers emerge from the sand beneath their feet, and the desert erupts in gunfire and explosions. The ambush is part of a campaign that is not successful; in voiceover, an enigmatic character named Chani (played by the actor Zendaya) reveals that “our warriors couldn’t free [the planet] from the Harkonnens,” the occupying force responsible for the mining operation. But the scene establishes a motif that recurs throughout the film: a landscape that appears static and unchangeable shifts under one’s feet.
Dune is, by almost any set of criteria, a difficult novel to adapt into film. (Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt and David Lynch’s campy and largely unsuccessful 1984 adaptation provide evidence of the pitfalls.) The story takes place within looming spaceships and across ecologically distinct planets, including its main setting, the desert world of Arrakis, which is inhabited by enormous sandworms that regularly gobble up mining rigs and aircraft. (These worms produce the spice—a cross between a fossil fuel and a powerful hallucinogen—needed for everything from space travel to religious rituals.) Given the importance of alien fauna and futuristic technology to the story, it’s hard to avoid the slapstick of failed special effects—for example, in a climactic scene in Lynch’s adaptation, you can see bits of green screen floating in Kyle MacLachlan’s hair as he attempts to ride a sandworm.
Many of the book’s defining moments take place within its characters’ minds, in their apprehension of subtext, strategizing, or moments of enlightenment—another difficult hurdle for film. In Dune’s first section, members of the Atreides family engage in political machinations to avoid the downfall of their house after they are put in charge of Arrakis, and in its second, Paul Atreides (played by MacLachlan in Lynch’s version, and by Timothée Chalamet in Villeneuve’s) joins Chani’s society, the Fremen, and contends with his growing powers of prescience and his prophesied role as humanity’s savior. As the latest adaptation of a sprawling science fiction classic written in the 1960s, Villeneuve’s film meets a long-standing fan base primed to dissect any errors, and the context for its central themes—particularly religious war and totalitarianism—has changed significantly since it was first published.
Villeneuve handles these challenges well: His film, which tackles the novel’s first half, is comprehensible while retaining its alien quality, its dense, esoteric world depicted in a level of detail that feels compelling without being opaque (or, as in Lynch’s adaptation, cheesy and over-the-top). The narrative has been adjusted to place it closer to contemporary postcolonial theory (“They ravage our lands in front of our eyes…. Why did the emperor choose this path? And who will our next oppressors be?” Chani asks in the film’s opening scene), clarifying its political allegiances. The film’s greatest success is its understanding of scale: clusters of humans in vast landscapes of their own making, isolated from the past and future. These landscapes, and the structures humans build on top of them, appear stable and immutable—until something under their feet changes.
The appeal of science fiction comes from extrapolating the future of intelligent life from existing patterns in society. These stories can feel as endlessly fascinating as staring into a fun house mirror, marveling at how your face appears reflected across an unfamiliar topography. Where would I fit in if Earth became sentient and rejected humans? What would I do if an alien planet made the dead come back to life? But this need to extrapolate is also science fiction’s limitation. Many of the human patterns available to authors as the foundations of their worlds are arbitrary—the product of historical contingency, material fact, or luck—or the manifestations of power misunderstood as axioms, especially where they involve race and gender. “Science fiction, more than any other genre, deals with change—change in science and technology, and social change,” Octavia Butler wrote in her 1980 essay “The Lost Races of Science Fiction.” “But science fiction itself changes slowly, often under protest.” The challenge of science fiction is in finding a premise expansive enough to avoid reproducing those errors.
Herbert’s Dune draws on a wide range of references—the idea for the novel began as a magazine article about Oregon’s sand dunes; Herbert also read sociology, poetry, Marxism, the history of 19th-century wars in the Caucasus—and both the novel and film are studded with bits of culture from recent human history, familiar things sealed against the passage of time: bagpipes playing at a military ceremony, bullfighting, the name Duncan Idaho (Paul’s combat trainer, played by Jason Momoa), snippets of Christian verse, religious habits that echo those of medieval nuns worn by a mystical order called the Bene Gesserit. In one scene, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), the powerful companion of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), wears an updated version of chopines, the 16th-century platform shoe that holds associations with nobles and courtesans. These details make the world of Dune feel more convincingly real: 20,000 years into the future, not everything has been replaced, and random artifacts of Earth’s history remain.
Beyond those details, the axiom at the center of the story is relatively simple in its pessimism. People will do incredible things and commit incredible acts of destruction for a charismatic leader; such leaders will use their followers to consolidate power. The political system of Dune, an exponentially more technologically advanced society than our own, is space feudalism built on extractive colonialism. Assassination attempts are common, oppression is an acceptable tool, and dinners matter a great deal. The film ends with Paul pursuing a path that will not fundamentally alter the system that destroyed his family, that instead will merely give him a better place in its hierarchy, while visions of a bloody religious war to be waged in his name loom in the future. (Villeneuve’s adaptation leaves this conflict for a sequel, which will be released in 2023.)
Still, the story takes place at a moment when its motivating axiom and the structures that reinforce it begin to lose their soundness. In an early scene, an elder of the Bene Gesserit, having put Paul through a potentially fatal test to see if he might be the messianic figure the order has worked to produce, rebukes Jessica for her concern about her son’s fate: “Our plans are measured in centuries,” she says, a scale that makes the life of any person other than the predestined leader insignificant. But the film soon contradicts this longer view: Once Paul and Jessica flee and join the Fremen in the desert, every unit of time matters, and no life is insignificant, even after death—bodies are recovered to preserve the water they retain, essential for survival on the desert planet. Fate is not abstract but an immediate existential problem—a familiar shift in perspective for those living in a time of historic floods, storms, droughts, and fires. This aspect of Dune reminds me of a line from an essay by Garry Wills on a new translation of the Bible, in which he argues that from the rushed, “traffic-jam” prose of the Gospels, one can glean how “every aspect of the New Testament should be read in light of [the] ‘good news’ that the world will shortly be wiped out.” Paul’s arrival on Arrakis bears the same apocalyptic assurance for the Fremen.
Perhaps this is what makes Dune still feel relevant: It offers a view from inside a planetwide cataclysm, when tenets that seemed unshakable fall, and their alternatives—some terrible, some utopian—become newly tangible. “When you have lived with prophecy for so long, the moment of revelation is a shock,” one character tells Jessica. Paul’s arrival signals to Dr. Liet Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), a state official who secretly occupies an influential position in Fremen society, that her dreams of terraforming the desert planet might become reality: “Arrakis could have been a paradise…but then the spice was discovered. And suddenly no one wanted the desert to go away,” she tells Paul and Jessica. Under the current imperial government, the undertaking was considered too costly and endangered a lucrative market; with the disruption the Atreides bring, altering the planet’s climate becomes conceivable.
For all its futuristic technology and sandworms, Dune is deeply humanistic, which does not mean it necessarily celebrates humanity, but rather in the sense that Greek tragedies of hubris and self-annihilation are humanistic. Its contribution to the sci-fi canon is the idea that the new order that replaces the old is never purely liberatory; it cannot be indifferent to its revolutionaries’ self-interest. The ideals that orient change are human inventions and always, on some level, are made in the image of their creators. Jessica describes the messianic figure her order seeks as one transcending biological limitations, possessing “a mind powerful enough to bridge space and time, past and future. Who can help us into a better future.” Villeneuve’s Dune shows its protagonist before he assumes that power, and it maintains a sense of ambivalence, an outlook that asks how the future a revolution produces will be better than what came before.